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Matthew Hoh Headshot

The Gorilla in the Room

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Last week saw several reports, including in the Washington Post and the Guardian, claiming renewed or invigorated contacts between the Karzai administration and the Taliban. This has been reported on several occasions throughout the US' nine year involvement in the Afghan war, most recently in 2008 and 2009, and is the necessary first step in ending the conflict and bringing stability not just to Afghanistan, but to the region. Unfortunately, the Obama administration has been largely consistent in its dismissal of such efforts over the last two years, keeping constant with the Bush Administration's insistence on a military solution to the conflict. The refusal by the Obama administration to take a more active and leading role in negotiations, by reciting the same mantra as the Bush Administration, of only talking to the Taliban after they have laid down their arms and accepted the Afghan constitution (in essence surrendering)*, continues to obstruct any chances of a successful political resolution to the conflict.

The US with 100,000 troops, plus 50,000 coalition troops and a near equal number of contractors, is obviously the gorilla in the room militarily. However, when you consider the US is spending over $100 billion annually in Afghanistan, a country with a GDP of only $14 billion, the US position must be understood not just for its strength, but for its power brokering and king making abilities due to the sheer and obscene volume of dollars it pumps into Afghanistan. By ignoring this reality, the United States is serving no purpose but to prolong the conflict as it stands on the sidelines with its arms crossed, arguing, as it has for years, that talks are, at best, exaggerated and, at worst, defeatist.

The US' rhetoric towards a political solution to the war in Afghanistan is not backed up by its actions. While American generals, diplomats and politicians state the war must end with a settlement achieved through political means, the actuality is that very little US diplomatic efforts have occurred, while tens of thousands of troops have been added to the war effort. Without the US clearly demonstrating any honest interest in talks with the Taliban the chances of a negotiated settlement are slim.

The US must lead negotiations. As long as the US props up and enrichens the Karzai regime, there will not be a sincere willingness on the part of the Karzai government to truly work towards a reasonable settlement with its opposition. If the US is not in the room during negotiations and is instead increasing its troop and financial commitment to the Karzai government, the population that supports the insurgency will continue to view the American and western presence as a self-serving occupation with no interest in leaving. With regards to the notion that the enemy will wait us out if we indicate a desire to negotiate, the Guardian article referenced above, as well as this report from this past spring, indicate the reverse is true for elements of the insurgency's leadership. Finally, as long as the United States does not lead regional nations to the negotiation table, by acting as a broker and administrator, Afghanistan's neighbors will continue to act towards their own self interest to the point of sabotaging talks; as Pakistan did last year when it arrested Mullah Omar's number two man who was then beginning talks with the Karzai government.

The US is the gorilla in the room militarily, financially and politically. Statements that the Afghans must ultimately resolve their differences on their own have a considerable degree of truth to them, but until the US owns up to its position and responsibilities in Afghanistan, and leads efforts towards reconciliation the reality will remain that the current count of thousands dead and wounded and hundreds of billions of dollars spent will be an annual cost to the US with little, if no, benefit to Americans or Afghans.

*The Afghanistan Study Group believes denunciation of al-Qaeda and other trans-national terror groups to be a requirement for talks.